by Richard Trust
You might think Mark Donato was born with Nantucket blood running through his veins. After all, the energetic, peripatetic 64-year-old has been highly visible for 34 years as proprietor of the ’Sconset Market, active 17 years in the annual wine festival and in the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, and he ran for “Mayor of Nantucket,” a fundraiser for the Chamber. Fact is Donato was born in Armada, Michigan, raised in Los Angeles County, and spent 10 years as a self-professed “ski bum” at Sun Valley, Idaho, before venturing east to you-know-where.
Mark Donato was 4 years old when he and his family moved from Michigan to La Cañada, a city in Los Angeles County. He lived there until his enrollment at Arizona State University.
“I was not a fan of Southern California, so I never went back,” said Donato, who went from ASU (Class of 1972) to Sun Valley “where I had a wonderful career for 10 years as a ski bum, doing nothing, as a lot of people do in that area.”
He didn’t exactly do nothing but ski. His college studies led to his obtaining a teaching certificate in English literature and he taught high school English in Hailey, Idaho, “where actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore raised kids,” Donato pointed out. He lived in a small rental apartment with three other people, and also worked as a contractor, but with little or no building during Idaho winters, skiing was a terrific diversion.
“It was in Sun Valley where I met my former wife on a chair lift, and she said she was about to move to an island called Nantucket,” Donato said of Pamela McKinstry, a celebrated cookbook author who now resides in Carmel, California, but still makes frequent visits to Nantucket. “I had never heard of it, being an Idaho boy. I came out for a visit with an overnight bag and I neverleft. I fell in love with the island and fell in love. Nantucket has been quite good to me.” What is it about Nantucket that captured his heart and soul?
“I’m not really a beach person, so it wasn’t the ocean,” Donato said. “Here I was, coming from Sun Valley, I never saw anything historic. Actually, there were historic sites out West, but they were cowboy style.
“I love the architecture here, the small lanes, the look of the land, the feeling of living in a small town. I don’t get to appreciate summer in Nantucket (because of his long hours at the market), but I do love it here.”
Mark Donato knows Nantucket has chosen the right course in preserving the island’s natural attributes. “They had the foresight to create a very strong Historic District Commission that works to preserve historic structures and protect the character of our community,” Donato said. “We can thank the land bank for preserving the old world feel and stopping urban sprawl,” said Donato. “Thousands of acres
that are now conservation land would have been developed.”
Mark Donato stepped ashore 36 years ago and two years later purchased the ’Sconset Market, which is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
After Mark transitioned from Sun Valley to the Grey Lady, he and his first wife were a photojournalist team from the mid-80s to mid-90s traveling to, and turning out guidebooks about Africa. He did the photography, she did the writing.
“We worked here on the island only in the summer, as so many Nantucketers do,” said Donato, a judge of the antique auto parade during Daffodil Weekend in late April. “The high season in the safari business runs from September through December, so for nine straight years I would close up the market on Labor Day and we would be gone. “She would submit the text, I would submit the photographs. We had a wonderful time doing that.”
Donato was also one of the co-founders of the Morning Glory Café downtown; it went on to be an extremely successful restaurant followed up by a number of extremely successful cookbooks by McKinstry.
In the course of 20 years, Donato opened two more restaurants: the Dockside downtown and the ’Sconset Café.
“The Sconset Café was a good fit to open up,” Donato noted. “At the time, they were selling newspapers and ice cream and I was able to move that over to the ’Sconset Market. And (the café) became a phenomenally successful restaurant. I sold that 10 years ago. Now I’m just a green grocer.”
Donato has been closely aligned with the Nantucket Wine Festival for almost two decades, recently a director serving as community liaison. But it goes much deeper.
“Wine is one of my passions, and I’m very proud of what the wine festival has done in the 17 years,” he said. “It’s one of the largest events on the island, happening the week before Memorial Day, so it’s a great shot in the arm for everybody.” Because of his connection with the wine festival, Donato travels annually to meet winemakers and taste the fruits of their labor. Every year he’s in France and Napa/Sonoma in California for at least three weeks. This year he added Spain. In the past, he’s sampled the wines of Italy and South Africa. Donato and Beth English were married four years ago and she, too, is in the wine business. She owns currentVintage, a clothing, home furnishing and wine boutique in downtown Nantucket. “She has the same passion for wine,” Mark said, “and she travels with me.”
Donato had a contractor’s license when he came to Nantucket, and he put it to good use. “At that time the ’Sconset Market was a floundering little market,” Donato said. “It had gone under, not making any money for three years, so I was a contractor by day and
running the market by late afternoon and night.”
The Siasconset Civic Association is headed by Donato, who has been on its board for nine years. “That’s a local organization we try to use as a steppingstone for people to talk about traffic complaints, potholes to be filled, and so forth.”
By virtue of being in one of the civic associations on Nantucket, one is automatically part of the Nantucket Civic League. “The Civic League puts on erosion forums, political forums, we meet the candidates every year before elections, we meet the articles just before
town meeting,” Donato said. “It’s a good organization; they bring the candidates before the people and fire questions at them, that sort of thing.”
When Plum Television was the TV station of Nantucket (2004-12), Donato was “blessed enough,” he said, to have co-hosted “The Morning, Noon and Night Show” with Kate Brosnan. “I enjoyed that,” he said of his three years on the program, which was televised live Sunday mornings and repeated twice later in the day. “I was an interviewer and I got to meet some wonderful people.”
Plum TV made six wine and culture movies and Donato was part of the creative team. He traveled for three weeks in each of six years, resulting in one-hour, wine-inspired documentaries featuring Spain, Tuscany, Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. “I had super fun doing that,” he said. Visitors to ’Sconset are apt to have a wonderful time browsing through the items at Donato’s market in the Siasconset village square. Bread, milk, eggs, juices, and butter are staples, and mornings find customers lining up at the 8 a.m. opening for freshly baked croissants and other pastries, coffee and the newspaper of choice.
Gourmet jams and jellies, condiments, and other upscale items line the shelves, while postcards, souvenirs, clothing with Nantucket logos (hats, sweatshirts, jackets), soaps, deli sandwiches, the popular ’Sconset Cookie, and ice cream in a cone or cup to savor when strolling the lanes and paths are among other offerings.
After 34 summers, Donato knows what his clientele wants. As such, customers stream in and out in large numbers. The market had been in the red for three years before Donato took the reins, turning it into a profitable venture. “The former owner asked me to run it and he cut me the deal of a lifetime,” he said. “I turned it into gourmet and people liked it. What I’m proud of is that it’s like a little country store that retains that old school character. People say, ‘Don’t change it. Keep it the way it is.’ ”
Donato has no plans to retire any time soon, but when he does, he plans to dip his toes into political waters.
“I’m still working rather hard,” he said. “I hope to retire at some point and run for selectman. Hopefully I’ll be electable.”